From ‘Gender Queer’ to ‘New Kid’, Graphic Novels Are Targeted by Censors

From School Library Journal:

​It seems to have started during Banned Books Week, ironically: Throughout the fall and winter, a steady drumbeat of book complaints and challenges, mostly in schools but a few in public libraries, has spread across the country.

This fall, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe was the most challenged graphic novel—and perhaps the most challenged book—nationwide during increased calls to remove “offensive” materials from libraries. But Kobabe’s memoir is far from the only graphic novel people demand be removed from the shelves.

Whether in officially filed challenges or during speeches at school board meetings, parents and organizations nationwide have brought objections to Jerry Craft’s New Kid, Jarrett Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo, Cathy Johnson’s The Breakaways, and the graphic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Often, news of one book’s challenge spurs a new one somewhere else.

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at the writers’ organization PEN America, says graphic novels are more vulnerable to challenges, in part because they are still a relatively new and evolving medium, and older people simply are less comfortable with them. Parents also may be more uncomfortable with something depicted visually than with words alone, he says.

“There’s no question that groups have formed on social media, that they are sharing excerpts from books—often under the heading that they’re concerned about material and books—and they want other parents to know,” says Friedman. “Sometimes that mingles with a much more insidious, skeptical, and critical point concerning schools and libraries in schools and their purpose. So it’s difficult to draw the line in some cases between groups that are just concerned parents and groups that are active on other political causes.”

Some of the people challenging books have also protested mask policies in the schools, for instance, while others want changes in the curriculum. No Left Turn, for example, includes “promote fact-based learning” and “promote classical education in the liberal arts and sciences” among its goals. The organization also specifically targets books and curricula that include “critical race theory” (which is not taught in elementary and secondary schools), “anti-police” attitudes, and sex education.

“The challenges pretty consistently are concerned with books that deal with LGBTQ identities, with sexual activity, or sexual assaults, or themes of racism, immigration, diversity,” Friedman says. “And in particular, anti-racism.”

In some cases, community members have also sought criminal charges against libraries or librarians for having particular books on their shelves.

In East Bremerton, Washington, a parent tried to file charges against the school staff who purchased Gender Queer for the Olympic High School library. Kitsap County prosecutor Chad Enright reviewed the Washington obscenity statute, which includes a clause stating that it does not apply to libraries under state supervision. While the statute doesn’t specifically mention school libraries, Enright told SLJ that in his opinion it did apply to them.

The statute requires that the book be reviewed as a whole and that in order for the images to be deemed obscene, they must have been designed for the sole purpose of sexual stimulation. “I don’t think that the intent of any of these images is for sexual stimulation,” Enright says, “but more importantly, the book as a whole, I don’t see that it is written with the intent of sexual stimulation. This book tells a story that, I think, has very some very good redeeming qualities for the reader that is far different from sexual stimulation.”

Enright declined to prosecute. Nonetheless, according to local news reports, the school removed the sole copy of the book from its library, because of its “sexually explicit images”; a spokesperson said the graphic novel “was not thoroughly reviewed before placement in the library.”

. . . .

In Gillette, WY, a resident tried to press charges against the Campbell County Public Library because of five sex education books, including Cory Silverberg’s graphic novel Sex Is a Funny Word. The county attorney’s office sought assistance from an attorney in a neighboring county to review the case, and he determined it was not prosecutable.

Terri Lesley, the executive director of the Campbell County Library System, says that while she found the episode “discouraging,” at least it couldn’t happen again. “We went through a process and now there’s an opinion on it that says that’s not prosecutable,” she says. “There is an exemption for public libraries and schools. They went through the different statutes methodically, so it’s a pretty strong document.”

Campbell County residents also filed 57 challenges, targeting 29 books, two of which are graphic novels—Gender Queer and A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex and Disability, by A. Andrews (Oni Press, 2020). The library has a well-established challenge system, which Lesley said was not used much in previous years. “It sure has been used a lot in the last six months,” she said.

Instead of going through the library’s process, Lesley says, the patrons went directly to the county commissioners, who aren’t involved with the process of challenging a book. But once people understood the process, Lesley said, “we started to receive a lot more” challenges. The library has elected to retain all the challenged books so far, although the two graphic novels were moved to the adult graphic novel section.

“That’s what a good Request for Reconsideration policy is all about,” Lesley says. “The manager reviewed the books and determined that that would have been adult content … so the manager made a decision to move the books to the adult graphic novel collection. And that happened at the meeting between the patron and the manager.”

James Lucas Jones, the publisher of Oni Press, says Gender Queer has always been marketed as an adult graphic novel. However, he points out, age ratings are a marketing tool. “The book won the ALA Alex Award and was an Israel Fishman nonfiction honoree, which would suggest that it had appeal beyond just being considered an ‘adult’ title,” he says.

Gender Queer is an important story that will resonate with anyone that reads it,” he says. “Maia’s experience is thoughtfully crafted, heartfelt, and relatable. Eir narrative is the kind of story that teens having similar feelings and concerns need to see out there, so they know they’re not alone. That’s such an important thing—to feel like your pain and heartache isn’t this singular, isolated thing, that others have felt that way and that there’s a path through it. Seeing the joy and relief in that journey is such a big deal, too.”

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

While PG acknowledges that censorship has a bad history and earned reputation, a public library is supported by public funds extracted in one way or the other from people living in one or more government subdivisions, typically community or county, often with a dollop of state funds included.

The public is the source of the funds and, PG believes, should have a voice in how those funds are spent, even down to the book level. Librarians are public employees, also paid with funds extracted from individuals whether those individuals want to pay them or not.

Invariably, charges of censorship are directed toward the general public in disputes similar to those described in the OP.

However, in the United States, other than the Library of Congress, librarians also make choices concerning what books the library will acquire and what books the library will not offer to the public. Should one or more librarians determine that a book is not appropriate for the library to acquire, they are engaged in a species of censorship themselves, denying members of the public who support the library from having ready and free access to that book.

Assume, for discussions’ sake that the library acquired a book that flatly stated that people of some races are inferior to people of some different races. Would the editors of The School Library Journal criticize those citizens who protested the racist books and demand they be removed?

41 thoughts on “From ‘Gender Queer’ to ‘New Kid’, Graphic Novels Are Targeted by Censors”

  1. So, some people think a book should be in the library, and some think it should not be in the library. Seems like a perfectly reasonable exercise in participatory democracy. What’s the problem?

    Just for fun, how about posting a list of proposed acquisitions by library staff? Also make provision for public postings of books suggested for acquisition by the public. The internet allows for robust public discussion.

  2. Seeking input from a library’s constituents regarding books which should or should not be in a collection is part of the normal process of running a library. Ultimately, however, librarians are the best equipped for deciding what books do and do not belong in their collection. A librarian should support intellectual freedom without consideration of politics, religion or morality. It is no stretch to say that the public, or more correctly, special interests of the VOCAL public would not be concerned with professional neutrality when considering which books the library should acquire or de-access.

    With respect to PG’s “just for fun” scenario, I’m not sure the SLJ editors would criticize citizens complaining about a racist book. The library profession SHOULD be concerned with stamping out racist books from its shelves. That being said, if the racist tone of the book serves some scholastic goal, I could see a school librarian arguing for its inclusion.

    • Or local interests?
      We’re not a monoculture, you know.
      The US is a pluralistic society and might doesn’t equate to right.
      Librarians have the power to choose but the locals control their funds.
      Tread lightly less “pitchforks and torches” follow.

      Actions breed reactions.

      • Where do you think librarians come from? They are part of the communities they serve. Threatening violence upon library staff for making a book available for anyone to voluntarily read or not certainly makes a statement about the local interests of whatever unfortunate society it is to which you belong.

        • Are you certain?
          For that matter, do they all go out and survey local mores regularly?
          Or just go by their beliefs and gut feelings?
          Or just rely on their specialist publications?
          How many libraries carry local/indie authors?
          Last I heard, when Overdrive offered libraries the opportunity to broaden tbe scope of their catalogs, the response was to ask indie books be ghettoized, put where they could be ignored en masse.
          Community responsive, huh?

          • I don’t know. I’m sure the MLS has changed curriculum many times over the years, but I’d guess many would keep up with best practices. If I remember correctly, Overdrive “offered” a huge catalog of some two hundred thousand uncurated, often unedited, mostly low quality e-books from Smashwords. More recently, I’ve heard Overdrive is coming out with a curated selection of e-books which could be worth exploring. Yes, community responsive: library patrons should have a positive experience with the library, to encourage lifelong readers. That is not accomplished by dropping a warehouse of low quality e-books into the catalog, frustrating readers ability to search for books they would be interested in that are of sufficient quality.

            If you’re familiar with the Steam PC game sales platform, years ago you could only sell your game on the platform if you had a publisher. Later it was somewhat opened to small studios and better known indies. Even later, the floodgates were opened, and if you could compile example code into a more or less working program, you too could sell “your own” game. Finding decent quality games became a bit of a nightmare, unless you stuck to the big publishers or knew about a specific game from word of mouth or zine or other out of band source. The community itself has to do the legwork of adding the metadata (tags) and reviewing them so that other people might benefit in their own searches.

            How many indies are in bookstores? The same challenges that indies face getting their work in brick and mortar bookstores applies to libraries.

        • Threatening violence upon library staff for making a book available for anyone to voluntarily read or not certainly makes a statement about the local interests of whatever unfortunate society it is to which you belong.

          What statement did it make about the people burning cities in summer 2020? That was far more than a threat.

          • “What statement did it make about the people burning cities in summer 2020? That was far more than a threat.”

            I find the false equivalence of threatening to do harm to library staff over their book selection to riots breaking out at protests over POC being murdered by police to be offensive and I encourage you to seek professional help. I’m done engaging with you. Cheers.

            • So, what do the riots of 2020 tell us about the rioters? If a common figure of speech is considered “Threatening violence upon library staff,” and “makes a statement about the local interests of whatever unfortunate society it is to which you belong.” then we can ask what statement actual violence makes.

              I agree about the false equivalence. A common figure of speech is not equivalent to actual burning and killing.

              Some may indeed be offended by such questions. OK. Go for it. Be offended. Enjoy it. Who cares?

    • Ultimately, however, librarians are the best equipped for deciding what books do and do not belong in their collection.

      Why? What best equips them over others?

      • Their credentials, of course. Whether or not they actually have a clue about the reading tastes and needs of the local community is not even a secondary concern. You will accept the dictat of your intellectual betters, peasant, or else be subject to criticism in the School Library Journal!

          • When experts are offended that anyone would question their choices and immediately jump to concluding that anyone who does is a bad person, then yes, they are bad. (Also, don’t confuse credentials with expertise.)

            When people who are “reasonable and clear thinkers” refuse to admit that they have their own prejudices and biases, then yes, they are bad.

          • Okay, I tried…

            Experts?
            Technically speaking, I’m an “expert”. Day job? Nothing but experts in dozens of disciplines.
            When somebody plays the “expert” card resort to authority on me my first question is, “expert on what?” , how current, how *relevant* to the subject matter? Context matters. Unlike ivory towers and computer simulations, the real world is complex and messy. As it has been said, “an expert is somdbody who knows more and more about something until they know nothinb about anything else.

            So, about community libraries: librarians are experts? At what? Child psychology? Sociology? Ethics? Demographics? Censorship law? Literature? Or, maybe, library science? Information retrieval?

            I don’t doubt those folks know how to run a nice and smooth library. But that expertise is irrelevant when the subject is the mores of a community and parental say in childrearing. Especially when it antagonizes parents that are actually involved in their kids- education instead of walking away and leaving it up to TV, the internet, overworked teachers, or street gangs to do the job for them.

            A bit of respect for them might be in order.
            They may be wrong. Or they might actually be right. But until the state starts taking kids away to be brought up in creches to be perfect consumption-and-voting drones those parents have an obligation to be involved and a right to be heard. To not be dismissed as “anti-intellectuals” and “deplorables” by “their betters”.

            You’d think tbat 2016 would’ve been enough of a lesson of the kind of power those “deplorables” can lend to somebody willing to listen to their concerns. If you think the orange guy was bad, imagine what happens if a *smart* guy taps into those concerns?

            Then again, 2010 and 2014 failed to teach that strategic overreach only helps “the other guys” giving them issues to rally around and weapons *they too* can use.

            The US is not a monoculture. Congress is not a parliament and elected posts belong to the candidate, not the party. This is all by design and for very good reasons. The tenth amendment exists for the same very good reason: to give people the freedom to live or die by their choice. And many would rather die their way than live yours.

            We live together or we die together, we either give each room to breath, to live our lives as best we can, or we all die. And before it gets to that, the aggrieved *will* act. A bit of tolerance can go a long way, especially when it doesn’t impact your survival. Because without it, the reaction to the intolerance *will* impact it.

            Live and let die.
            Before it’s too late.

            • “Then again, 2010 and 2014 failed to teach that strategic overreach only helps “the other guys” giving them issues to rally around and weapons *they too* can use.”

              More threats…

              “The US is not a monoculture. Congress is not a parliament and”
              blah blah blah

              “room to breath, to live our lives as best we can, or we all die. And before it gets to that, the aggrieved *will* act. A bit of tolerance can go a long way, especially when it doesn’t impact your survival. Because without it, the reaction to the intolerance *will* impact it.”

              Maybe it’s the bourbon talking, but… WTF is wrong with you people? I assume you’re different people, maybe you and Elliot123 are just sock puppets. Anyway, ideas are not existential threats, well, unless you have a habit of threatening violence, then maybe YOUR ideas are. Lighten the hell up, man.

          • Yes, experts are bad. People who can reason and think clearly are double plus bad.

            As in so many things, it’s hard to top the past masters. Gilbert & Sullivan probably wouldn’t mind if we replaced the “Modern Major General” with the “Modern Intellectual.”

            And perhaps try “Modern School Librarian?”

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlTisI_HSgw

      • They have access to statistics of what books do and do not get read in their library to help in weeding. They (should) engage with the community and may conduct surveys to determine what the public is interested in. They are generally aware of popular/new books to acquire. They try to balance the needs/wants/requirements of existing and potential patrons with an eye toward diversity, inclusiveness, and equity. I know how anti-intellectualism is, unfortunately, a popular attitude among a large percentage of the American public, but librarians trained to, and damn well better be competent and professional to do their jobs properly.

        • I know how anti-intellectualism is, unfortunately, a popular attitude among a large percentage of the American public, but librarians trained to, and damn well better be competent and professional to do their jobs properly.

          So, just how is anti-intellectualism? What is it? The current issue is that many members of the community that funds and is served by the library think the librarians are neither competent nor professional enough to meet the needs of the community in curating the collection.

          Show of hands… Who here is an intellectual? I’m sitting on my hands. But don’t be shy. If you are an intellectual, let us know

          People believe the librarians are using their positions to push their personal political beliefs. This is especially true if the librarian has “an eye toward diversity, inclusiveness, and equity” in book selection. Those are definitely political issues.

        • Agree. Big pharma can turn a man trans, but can never make him a woman, no matter how many times it clicks its heels together..

  3. So no library, including publically funded state libraries, should carry, for instance, Mein Kampf?

    How can you know your enemy if you can’t read what he says?

  4. They use the “racism” argument to ban Huck Finn, you know.

    The current spate of badly educated librarians are also throwing out the works of old white men like Dickens and Tennyson.

    They’re also banning books like “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” because it runs counter to the Narrative.

  5. There’s censorship, and then there’s “protecting young children from pornographic material.”

    Simply put, most of what’s going on is the latter, and not the former.

    Far too many pundits, politicians, twitter users and journalists purposely cloud the issue for their own purposes. These are books, not in public libraries, but in SCHOOL libraries – grade school, middle school, and high school.

    There are some excellent Youtube videos of what went on in Virginia – where school board members would stop parents reading from these books (or showing the pictures) because – “children were present” at the board meetings! The hypocrisy is stunning. One could argue that perhaps some of it is age appropriate for high school (I would not) but the problem is, most of the complaints came from parents of below high school level classes.

    • Correct.

      I am baffled that this conversation has been mostly about public libraries, which are a different issue from school libraries. If it’s illegal to sell the book to minors, how can you justify putting it in a school library used entirely by minors?

      • Because *they* want to, of course.
        Users don’t matter very often.

        Like the guy in Virginia said, “why should parents have any say in their kids education?”

        What puzzles me is why the same people who (correctly) object to the sexual objectfication of adult women have no issue with the premature sexualization of children, both girls and boys. (For various values of “premature” set without regard to the child’s specific upbringing.)

        • And that they see nothing strange in the rash of children and adolescents who are proclaiming they are asexual, in an environment that is rushing to sexualize them before they’re ready.

          The whole thing is disgusting.

          • And that they see nothing strange in the rash of children and adolescents who are proclaiming they are asexual, in an environment that is rushing to sexualize them before they’re ready.

            Recently, Amazon banned Ryan T. Anderson’s bestselling book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.”

      • Well, school libraries are public libraries. They are not open to the public, but they are funded and are accountable to the public.

        • I feel this distinction is not only not always true (some school libraries are in private schools), but confuses the issue, because it’s not relevant. The issue is not ‘are these libraries managed by the government’, it’s ‘what audience are these libraries intended for.’ It doesn’t matter if a library intended for children is run by the county or run by a private individual. The books selected for a library intended for children should be appropriate for children. At very least, they shouldn’t break laws (as an adult would be, if they sold an explicit book to a minor).

          • The public factor is what gives all of us standing in the matter. Curation of libraries in private schools is the business of the owners and customers of those schools. The curation issue in libraries is rarely one of breaking the civil law where we all would have standing.

            • Well, at least the local taxpayers and parents.
              It’s their parental rights that are being usurped snd denied.
              “Pay up and shut up.”

              And then they wonder why school and library levies are opposed.

          • Well, by all appearances, school libraries exist for librarians.
            It keeps them employed, it lets them push their ideologies, and they complain when their unquestionable ivory tower is questioned.

  6. A large part of the problem is hidden agendas behind censorship requests. The key inquiry, as to school libraries, is much more complex than moralists of all kinds will acknowledge:

    As a person with appropriate standing (that is, someone actually in the school system in question), have I fully reviewed this book and determined that the content of the book is actively harmful to a plurality of the student population at that school, without regard to any sectarian or conformity-mandating perspective on what is “actively harmful”? If “yes,” then I bring it to the attention of the librarian through appropriate process… and except that in extremely rare instances, the librarian’s professional judgment is informed by a much broader understanding of what belongs in a school library, what else is in this school library, and that disagreement with my challenge is not an indication that the librarian must be fired immediately.

    Notice all of the boundary conditions in there? One of the big problems with school-library selections — and I’ve been fighting these battles since around Watergate — is that a substantial proportion of challenges fail more than one of the boundary conditions. Leaving aside the areas most-subject to argument and disagreement (and far too often blindness), consider the difference between “actively harmful to a K-6 student population” and “actively harmful to a teenaged ‘reentry’ student population.” And it has to be the whole work. Coriolanus wouldn’t make it into any school library if parts were read in isolation; neither would the Old Testament, nor Lord of the Flies… nor Fahrenheit 451.

Comments are closed.